Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: Offensive Defence
II: Offensive Defence
When reporting on 8 January 1945 to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on his decision to go on to the defensive for the time being and to concentrate on making a success of an offensive in the spring, Field Marshal Alexander explained why he had modified his previous intentions and plans: Eighth Army had not been as page 358 successful as had been hoped because of the difficulties of terrain and weather; the enemy had developed his defences round Bologna into a strong fortress area, from which Fifteenth Army Group would be unable to drive him in winter with the forces available; the enemy had formed a reserve of four divisions to meet an Allied offensive or launch a counter-offensive, while Fifteenth Army Group was unable to create an equivalent reserve; Eighth Army was in urgent need of re-organisation, for which some divisions would have to be withdrawn from the line; the artillery ammunition available to Fifteenth Army Group would allow an offensive for only about 15 days. ‘If that period was to be extended, I should be unable to carry out my primary mission; indeed, until stocks could be built up again, Fifteenth Army Group would be unable to follow up an enemy withdrawal with any chance of a decisive success.’1
Alexander had decided, therefore, ‘to pass temporarily to offensive defence in Italy. I intend to carry out minor offensive operations in order to keep the enemy on the alert and improve our positions. Plans will be made for the resumption of the offensive and will be concerted with Eisenhower.’2
By this time the enemy was on the line of the Senio River along the whole of Eighth Army's front except near Alfonsine, on Route 16, where he continued to hold a small but strong salient east of the river. He had reacted to the Canadian Corps' drive towards Valli di Comacchio by strengthening his Adriatic flank. By the middle of January he opposed Eighth Army with what amounted to eight and a half divisions; at the beginning of December he had had only six.
General McCreery held a conference of the corps commanders of Eighth Army on 9 January to discuss the possibility of an enemy counter-attack and to lay down a defensive policy. An attack down the axis of Route 16 might result in the loss of Ravenna and permit the enemy to continue to Forli, cut Route 9 and close Route 67, but the German reserves appeared to be too weak to arouse anxiety over this possibility. The policy decided upon, therefore, was to defend the existing line and prepare to resume the offensive.
1 The Italian Campaign, p. 25.
The corps was to prepare for the resumption of the offensive by continuing the construction of roads, and by allowing as many troops as possible to rest and train. Defensive works were to be hidden and dummy tracks, leading towards the river where no crossing would be attempted, were to be built in full view of the enemy.
Headquarters 2 Polish Corps was withdrawn on 7 January, and 5 Kresowa Division, complete with its supporting arms, the Army Group Polish Artillery and other Polish units passed to the command of 5 Corps, which thus became responsible for the left sector of Eighth Army's front. At the same time the corps' right boundary was moved northward along the Senio to about a mile south of Cotignola. The New Zealand Division, whose units south of Route 9 already had been relieved by 10 Indian Division, took over the left of 56 Division at Felisio, and the 56th replaced the Canadians on the right of 5 Corps' front, which was now about 17 miles long. The corps had the equivalent of five infantry brigades in the line, a sixth in reserve, and the rest of its troops resting in rear, ready to move up again at 48 hours' notice.
The 56th Division, two brigades strong, was responsible for a relatively narrow sector on the right, while the New Zealand, Indian and Polish divisions occupied progressively broader sectors in the centre and on the left. The troops in reserve, quartered around Forli or farther back near Cesena, were in country which closely resembled that which Eighth Army would have to cross when it resumed the offensive; they were able to train, therefore, in realistic circumstances, and were close enough to the front to hurry back if the enemy attempted a counter-offensive.
Civilians, reluctant to leave their homes, were evacuated from localities overlooked by the enemy, from buildings housing headquarters, and from a zone about 3000 yards deep behind the main defences. This was justified on humane grounds as well as those of security, because the enemy's guns and tanks systematically destroyed all houses and farm buildings which might be used as strongpoints and observation posts. The Italians still in Faenza were not compelled to leave, but no more were allowed to enter page 360 the town. A few contrived to stay in the forward zone, but most were evacuated; they made off slowly in long columns of trucks and farm carts. The New Zealand Division provided transport to assist in the removal of an estimated 1000 people and 500 cattle, as well as rabbits and other animals, from its sector.
Snow began to fall in the afternoon of 6 January and continued at intervals next day, covering the ground to a depth of about six inches. After a heavy frost the snow was frozen hard, which made silent movement on it almost impossible. Frosty nights and fine cold days followed until towards the middle of the month, when there was a spell of rain and misty weather, which in turn was succeeded by more frosty, fine weather during which the thaw reduced the roads to a very bad state. Daybreak on the 25th unexpectedly revealed a fresh snowfall four or five inches deep, but this also began to thaw.
There was little activity on the front. The enemy did not relax his hold on the stopbanks on both sides of the Senio, but showed no sign of launching an attack. North of Route 9, where the high stopbanks dominated the surrounding country, 56 Division and the New Zealand Division occupied positions about 500 yards from the near bank and based on houses and farms which they converted into strongpoints with mines and wire. Although white snow suits were worn, it was virtually impossible to reach the river in daylight, and although patrols did occasionally penetrate to the stopbank at night, they were unable to stay there.
South of Route 9 the stopbanks were comparatively low, vanishing altogether in some places, and therefore did not dominate the countryside. Immediately south of the highway the enemy still held positions east of the river, while farther south, towards Tebano, 10 Indian Division had control of the near stopbank and had outposts on the river line; farther upstream, beyond Tebano, the Indians were able to patrol across the river because the main German positions were on rising ground and only outposts remained in the river valley. On 5 Kresowa Division's front, on Eighth Army's extreme left, where both sides occupied high ground some distance from the banks of the Senio, the Poles patrolled deep into no-man's land.
The New Zealand Division held its sector, which extended about 6000 yards north-eastwards from just south of Route 9, with 6 Brigade on the right and 5 Brigade on the left, and with an ad hoc brigade group in Forli as divisional reserve. Each of the two for- page 361 ward brigades had two battalions in the line and one in reserve at Faenza; they had under command an armoured regiment, an anti-tank battery (with 17-pounders and M10s) and a machine-gun company, and in support a 4.2-inch mortar battery and a field company of engineers. The divisional reserve consisted of Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, two infantry battalions, an armoured regiment, an anti-tank battery and 27 (MG) Battalion less two companies. The artillery and engineers functioned under the centralised command of the CRA and CRE respectively. Tank support for 5 Brigade was provided by 19 Regiment and for 6 Brigade by the 20th, each with one squadron close to the forward infantry, one on a gunline, and one in reserve. From time to time the infantry battalions changed places so that each in turn had a spell in the line and in reserve at Faenza or Forli. The tank squadrons exchanged positions in each regiment, and the anti-tank batteries and machine-gun companies were relieved the same way.
The defences were organised to withstand or repel a major attack. To cope with the possibility of an enemy penetration, 6 Brigade was to be prepared to attack northwards from Faenza to recapture the San Silvestro – Sant' Andrea area, and 5 Brigade westwards to recapture Celle and the high ground between it and the Senio. In case the enemy should succeed in penetrating so far, defences were based on the Scolo Cerchia for the protection of Faenza and the bridges in the vicinity.
The patrolling policy was to dominate the near banks of the Senio, discover and clear gaps in the minefields, and reconnoitre enemy defences and possible crossing places of the river. The enemy outposts were alert and sensitive to the movement of patrols and working parties; the enemy also patrolled vigorously. The following incidents typify this activity.
Early one morning the Maori Battalion saw some Germans heading towards Palazzo Laghi from the river, and sent a patrol to investigate. The patrol brought back six prisoners, who were interrogated by two Jewish officers (attached to 28 Battalion for experience). The Germans had been sent out to take prisoners, and had gone to Palazzo Laghi unaware that Allied troops were in the vicinity. They were expecting a runner at 6 p.m. with news of their relief. The Maoris waited for the runner and enticed him into captivity by using the German codeword. He had orders for the German patrol to return to its headquarters, so the Maoris pretended to be that patrol with the object of reconnoitring the river for crossing places. Seven of them set off towards the stopbank, but they were met by small-arms fire and forced to withdraw with three wounded.page 362
One evening three Germans, whose snow clothing was said to be so white that it could be easily detected, appeared with a dog in front of a house occupied by a platoon of 23 Battalion near the railway. When the New Zealanders engaged these men, another enemy party, estimated to be six strong, opened fire with automatic weapons at close range. They were all driven off by machine-gun and mortar fire.
A standing patrol from 26 Battalion at Galanuna was attacked next evening by eight Germans wearing white clothing and snowshoes; they gained a foothold in the outbuildings and fired a bazooka and grenades at the house, but were repelled by artillery, mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire, which wounded three of them.
Three men dressed in snow clothing approached at night to within 100 yards of a Vickers platoon's gunline near San Pietro in Laguna, but retired when challenged. The enemy reappeared about two hours later, but again withdrew after exchanging small-arms fire with the machine-gunners. In their flight they set off a trip flare, which attracted fire from other troops in the neighbourhood. At dawn two bazookas and a Schmeisser1 were found abandoned near the machine-gunners' position.
This was one of several small German patrols armed with bazookas (or Panzerfausten) which approached the Division's lines about this time; it was thought their object was primarily to reconnoitre, but they also were to attack any good target that offered. Usually they were chased away before they could do any damage.
A patrol from 26 Battalion set out before daybreak on 29 January for the stopbank west of Casa Claretta. Three men, covered by the others who stayed at a demollshed house nearby, went on to the bank, but were conspicuous in their white clothing on the snow-free crest and were forced off by small-arms fire.
A patrol from 23 Battalion, with the intention of ambushing the enemy, set out one evening to cross the river near the railway, but found a dannert-wire fence on the far side of the stopbank, which dropped steeply to the ice-covered water, 25 to 30 feet wide. The patrol, which had brought with it two 15-foot ladders, did not try to cross.
1 Schmeisser: German machine carbine.
‘Last night's fog carried a very unusual noise into our lines from the enemy side of the river—the sound of a train,’ stated the divisional Intelligence summary on 15 January. Reports from 5 Brigade suggested that the noise, which was heard on four or five nights, came from the railway between Castel Bolognese and Solarolo, roughly parallel with the Senio and behind the German front. Men of 22 Battalion claimed that twice before midnight on the 15th they heard ‘the sounds of puffing, the click of wheels passing over rails, the sound of a slow-moving train travelling just across the river in enemy territory. Men heard definite sounds of wheels going over jointed tracks.’1
No train was heard on the railway between Solarolo and Lugo, opposite the sector held by 56 (London) Division, most of whose troops ‘must have grown up with London expresses roaring in their ears.’2 Aerial reconnaissance and photograph interpretation threw no light on the mystery. No engine or wagons were seen, and the line to both the north-east and north-west of Castel Bolognese was in such a state that it could not be used. The road system in the enemy's rear was adequate for the bringing up of supplies; there was no apparent reason why he should go to the trouble and risk of repairing and keeping the railway in working order.
The Division found no satisfactory explanation for the ‘ghost train’. After hostilities had ceased in Italy, General Dr Fritz Polack, who had commanded 29 Panzer Grenadier Division at the time, said there had been no train running in the vicinity of Castel Bolognese. ‘No such sounds were heard by our forces. The only suggestion I can make is that it was the noise of long supply columns.’3
1 22 Battalion, p. 415.
To keep up the volume of fire in spite of the limitation on ammunition for the artillery and tanks, the infantry battalions made greater use of their own weapons, including six-pounder anti-tank guns and Piats; Browning machine guns were sited along the front; the M10s of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment gave defensive fire on call at night; the 4.2-inch mortars of 34 Battery covered the front for defensive and harassing fire. Because of the shortage of ammunition the Vickers guns of 27 (MG) Battalion seldom fired more than 15,000 rounds a day, often fewer; they were permitted to shoot only on call by the infantry and on special defensive-fire tasks.
Among the targets engaged by the artillery, tanks, M10s, mortars and machine guns were the German defences on the stopbanks of the Senio, working parties and patrols, vehicles, guns, mortars and occupied houses.
Normally quiet days, especially if Allied fighter-bombers were flying, followed nights of harassing fire, patrolling and much digging. Some of the enemy's harassing fire was provided by self-propelled guns, which could be heard moving about beyond the river. Air photographs indicated that they were hidden by day in houses in the rear and brought forward by night to shoot. Althoug sought out by the artillery, M10s and fighter-bombers, they were not prevented from doing some damage.
The enemy seized the opportunity during a fog which blanketed the front in mid-January to strengthen his defences; his working parties could be heard hammering, digging, sawing wood and making other noises usually heard only at night. Whenever located, these activities were harassed and silenced, but they often started again after the shooting stopped. Some of the sounds were interpreted as coming from bridge-building. Air observation, however, disclosed on 22 January that there were fewer bridges after a spate in the river; a few days later none could be seen in front of the 56th and New Zealand divisions, but before the end of the month the enemy had replaced some and was preparing to replace others.
Observation of the enemy's activities had aroused the suspicion that he might be thinning out preparatory to withdrawal. His mortars, nebelwerfers and rockets—all weapons which could be moved easily—were still in use at night, but he had discontinued his artillery harassing programme. Although he obviously still had men on the stopbanks, no recent contact had been made with his patrols. More tracked-vehicle movement than usual was heard on the night of 24–25 January. The explanation, that a changeover had page 365 been taking place, came the following night, when two men were captured from the newly arrived 4 Parachute Division which had relieved 29 Panzer Grenadier Division north of Route 9.
To test the strength of the German defensive fire and detect any sign of his thinning out, 5 Brigade put on fire demonstrations (or ‘Chinese’1 attacks, as they were called) after nightfall on 26 and 29 January, but stirred up very little response. After the later performance the enemy was seen reoccupying his positions on the stopbank.
General Freyberg gave instructions on 31 January for the Division to prepare to resume offensive operations; it was to implement immediately a policy which included reconnaissance and patrolling, the occupation of the near stopbank of the Senio as soon as possible, and the clearance of minefield gaps to permit the passage of tanks and the assembly of infantry for an attack across the river. In addition, the infantry brigade commanders were to examine two river-crossing operations, one from the Division's present location and the other together with, and on the left of, a crossing by 56 Division between Cotignola and Felisio. The decision as to which course was to be adopted was to be reached at a conference on 2 February.
On the night of 31 January – 1 February it was 6 Brigade's intention that 25 Battalion should establish a fighting patrol of platoon strength on the stopbank about half a mile north-east of Felisio, and that 26 Battalion should secure a lodgement on the bank west of La Palazza and occupy a nearby house; at the same time 5 Brigade was to send out patrols to reconnoitre routes to the bank, lift mines and capture prisoners.
1 This appellation probably derived from the Chinese addiction to fireworks. It was several years before the Korean war demonstrated what a genuine Chinese attack was like.
The enemy did not organise any opposition on the left flank for several hours, but brought increasingly heavy fire to bear from the front and the right. ‘Throughout the 15–16 hours we occupied these positions,’ Wilson later wrote, ‘enemy arty and mortar fire was extremely heavy with occasional relief. Our position on the stop-bank was difficult to hit. It was apparent that the enemy was consistently dropping his range on the advice of forward troops…. Eventually, he reduced his range to such an extent that one heavy mortar “hate” dropped among his own troops with some effect if the groans and outcries were an indication of casualties.’1
The 3-inch mortars, responding well to 12 Platoon's requests, made it hazardous for the enemy to venture on to the flat ground between the river and the far stopbank, which the platoon already covered with small-arms fire. The Germans who managed to cross the river in front of the platoon became the victims of their own mortar fire. ‘They lay or stumbled about as though wounded or “bomb happy” between the river and our positions and were the target of our fire and grenades…. The enemy, however, soon appreciated the position and commenced to cross the river to our right and left. Darkness made visibility poor, but it was at times possible to disperse troops attempting to cross on our left. To the right, however, the bend in the stopbank obscured fire and enemy could cross unhindered except by mortar fire.
‘The difficulties of our position were very obvious at this stage. It was apparent that the enemy could cross in large numbers and attack from either flank. Positions to our right on the stopbank would enfilade us from the right rear. I did not foresee that he would later occupy Gallegati in strength and so cover our rear.’2 The enemy's persistent supporting fire and sniping from the right made the bringing up of ammunition and the evacuation of casualties most difficult. Communications were improved when the company commander (Major J. Finlay) brought up a telephone and two lines, but very soon the lines were cut in many places by shellfire. After the platoon's No. 38 set received a direct hit by a stick grenade, the only wireless communication came from an enemy set which ordered the platoon in English to surrender.
1 Report dated 13 May 1945.
By mid-morning the platoon was practically out of ammunition and had no communication with B Company. Wilson reluctantly decided to withdraw and sent two men back at intervals to ask for smoke to cover the thinning out. Before this could be arranged, however, the enemy, sensing the platoon's predicament, charged and overran the position. ‘It was extremely unpleasant to be taken so ignominiously…. It is some consolation to record the enemy's known casualties…. I can record definitely that 11 of the enemy were killed, 15 wounded and 4 were taken PW. Others of my platoon claim to have seen further dead…. It is possible that 40–50 casualties were inflicted…. After the action had concluded, I was able to see within a 500 yard radius of my positions at least 500–800 enemy troops…. The frontal attacking party I put at 80–100…. I calculated that the enemy had been alarmed by the move and had expected it to be a prelude to a larger attack, and had consequently reinforced heavily.’2
The 25th Battalion's casualties on 31 January and 1 February were four killed, 10 wounded and 22 missing. Among the missing were Wilson, twice wounded, and two others wounded. The prisoners were taken some 15 miles behind the German lines and interrogated, apparently without divulging any information of value to the enemy; eventually they all succeeded in rejoining the Allied forces.
1 Report, 13 May 1945.
On the left of 25 Battalion the 26th had a similar task that night but adopted different tactics: only one section was sent to the stop-bank, and it withdrew when the German reaction showed there was no hope of success.
The plan was for 16 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Brent1) of D Company to secure a position with one section on the stopbank west of La Palazza, one section at a demolished nearby house, and one section and platoon headquarters at La Palazza. To create a diversion A Company's outpost at Casa Galanuna and some tanks fired on the stopbank north of D Company's objective, which was taken without much opposition. Very soon, however, Corporal Cocks's2 section on the stopbank came under fire from the farther bank and both flanks. One Bren gun was hit and put out of action and another damaged; two tommy guns jammed after a few rounds. The digging was exceptionally hard in the frozen ground, and the men had done little more than scratch the surface when the enemy attacked from the right. Concentrated fire from the section's still serviceable weapons killed two Germans and drove back the others. The 3-inch mortars and the field guns fired concentrations when the enemy was seen to be preparing for another counter-attack. Nevertheless eight or ten Germans succeeded in crossing the river. Enemy mortars ranged on the section's position and, as Cocks's men were running out of ammunition (all the grenades had been used), Brent gave the order to withdraw. The section, which had had one man killed and one wounded, brought back two wounded Germans, who said they had been only three weeks in Italy.
Fifth Brigade patrolled as intended in the evening of 31 January. Three-man patrols from the Maori Battalion (one each from B, C and D Companies) with mine detectors reconnoitred routes towards the stopbank in the vicinity of the river bend north-east of Palazzo Laghi and south-west of Casa Cuclotta without finding mines. Two of these patrols were prevented by machine-gun fire from reaching the stopbank; the third did not see the enemy.
The other 23 Battalion fighting patrol (12 men from D Company) carried an assault boat to the stopbank on the southern side of the railway, but could not lower it into the water because it was too heavy and the banks too steep, ice-bound and slippery. Neither fighting patrol, therefore, succeeded in taking prisoners.
Obviously an attack by a much larger force than a platoon would be necessary to gain and hold a lodgement on the stopbank. A revised policy was announced at the conference on 2 February: the Division was to continue patrolling and lifting mines on its front, but was to occupy no permanent positions in front of the existing forward localities; it was to maintain standing patrols where possible on the stopbank during the hours of darkness. A river-crossing operation on a corps basis was being considered: this was to be done by one brigade group of 56 Division on the right and two brigades of the New Zealand Division on a front of about 3500 yards on the left, and was to take place between Cotignola and Felisio, with an axis of advance to the north-west. It was expected that there would be 10 days' notice before any such' attack.